December 10, 2018

NASA probe arrives at skyscraper-sized asteroid which could hit Earth

04 December 2018, 08:19 | Ross Houston

Watch NASA live stream the arrival of its OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe

Bennu as seen on approach by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft

As NASA scientists learn more about Bennu, they'll be comparing their findings with counterparts from the Japanese Space Agency, whose Hayabusa 2 spacecraft arrived at the asteroid Ryugu earlier this year. "When we understand Bennu, we will understand something fundamental about our solar system".

For the past two years, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has sailed across the solar system by the light of the stars.

NASA aired live coverage of its arrival starting at 11:45 a.m. ET, shortly before the spacecraft began the 20-second burn that put it on the right trajectory around the asteroid.

Nasa is developing a strategy for deflecting Bennu, or any other asteroid found to be on a collision course with Earth, by use of a special spacecraft to slam into the object hard enough to nudge it onto a safer path, said Lindley Johnson, a planetary defense officer with Nasa's Science Mission Directorate.

About the size of a large auto, the spacecraft will shadow the asteroid for a year, before scooping up some gravel for return to Earth in 2023. Expect to hear lots of cheering when confirmation comes that OSIRIS-REx finally found its new home around Bennu. After a couple of flybys, OSIRIS-REx will settle into a steady orbit a few miles above the surface.

For the next 18 months or so, the spacecraft will study the asteroid, exploring its terrain and gathering data that could help show how asteroids like Bennu travel through space and how they could be used as a resource.

While the blurry snapshot might not look like much, its first look was the closest we've come to the space rock yet, at 1.4 million miles away.

This meeting will provide scientists with a rare window to look back at the beginnings of Earth's solar system, said Jay McMahon, an assistant professor in aerospace engineering at CU Boulder.

Osiris-Rex reached the "preliminary survey" phase of its mission on Monday, soaring to within 12 miles of the asteroid.

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On its first attempt, OSIRIS-REx will swoop down more than 410ft (125m) from its orbit around Bennu. The seven-year mission involved a close-up survey of the asteroid Bennu and collection of sample from Bennu's surface and return to Earth for study.

Asteroids are of extreme interest to scientists.

OSIRIS-REx launched on 8 September 2016 from Cape Canaveral in the US.

The spacecraft's full name, Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, reveals its major tasks. The probe will get within just 1 mile (1.6 km) of Bennu's surface on December 31, she said. The asteroid has an orbit that brings it relatively close to Earth about once every six years.

'We know from having studied Bennu through Earth- and space-based telescopes that it is a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. This will be the largest sample gathered from a space object since the Apollo moon landings.

It also is equipped with a "touch-and-go-sample acquisition mechanism", or TAGSAM, on the end of a 10-foot-long robot arm.

The craft will obtain somewhere between 2 ounces and 4.4 pounds of soil sample from the surface of Bennu using a robotic arm that will blast the surface with a puff of nitrogen gas and collect the pieces that fly off.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (Nasa) deep space probe has reached an asteroid which has a potential to collide with Earth.

'Bennu is a leftover fragment from the tumultuous formation of the solar system, ' NASA says. These microscopic grains of dust could be the same ones that spewed from dying stars and eventually coalesced to make the Sun and its planets almost 4.6 billion years ago'.

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